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Talking Xbox One X with Microsoft’s Shannon Loftis
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 01:14pm 08/11/17 | Comments
Recently we had the opportunity to sit down with general manager of Microsoft’s Global Games Publishing, Shannon Loftis, to discuss the new console and pose some questions about the past, present, and future of Xbox.

This week saw the launch of what has been dubbed the world’s most powerful console, the Xbox One X. The result of considerable engineering and design effort on Microsoft’s part, to provide consumers with a viable 4K solution in its line-up of Xbox consoles. Even though on paper it’s a direct competitor with Sony’s PlayStation 4 Pro, in terms of functionality and performance it feels like a pretty huge leap over the original launch day Xbox One.

With the ‘world’s most powerful’ moniker it might be easy to look past just how much more powerful the Xbox One X truly is. It has no problem rendering visually impressive titles like Gears of War 4 and Rise of the Tomb Raider in native 4K. And at rock solid frame-rates too. Which can make you wonder why we’re getting such a technical leap for what is essentially a mid, or late-generation hardware revision.

“It was absolutely a conscious decision from the beginning,” Shannon Loftis tell me. “The Xbox One architecture has delivered power one way or another since launch. The S was an improvement with the addition of HDR and Dolby Atmos, and then the X was just a natural kind of continuity of that evolution with its 4K capabilities. The key really is just to make sure that people who have invested with us and have come along on the Xbox ride this generation can choose when and if they want to move to 4K. And when they do, they're not leaving anything behind.”

This key aspect of not leaving anything behind has not only informed the design but the timing of the Xbox One X launch. Which seems to have been scheduled perfectly, especially with prices for 4K displays now entering the mass-market realm. For those looking to get into 4K gaming, or buying a console that could take advantage of their new 4K TV, it’s somewhat hard to look past the Xbox One X. And with the library of games already there, it also makes perfect sense for current Xbox One owners too.

“They're not leaving behind their games,” Shannon continues. “They're not leaving behind their community. Their great family of gamers. They're not leaving behind their history. You know, the achievements, and screenshots, and everything else.”

Out of the box the Xbox One X offers immediate improvements over the current Xbox One and Xbox One S models. Improved load-times, more advanced-texture filtering, improved frame-rates, and more. But outside of that it requires additional patches and updates to take full advantage of the new console, in what are called Xbox One X Enhanced versions of titles. Which gets you thinking, for such a huge and already established library of games and recent releases already in the market - how did Microsoft go about approaching developers with the news of the hardware revision.

“We've actually never stopped engaging with developers since the launch of Xbox One,” Shannon explains. “The One X and the One X development kit is really the, I would say the culmination of those relationships, but the conversations are ongoing even now. But you know, the dev kits have been incredibly well received just because they have all these lovely little features that make development easier. Like there's a programmable front panel which you can use to step through code if you're looking for a crash bug or something like that, and it's a single software switch to go from S to X. There's extra memory so you can run debuggers on retail. I mean there's just so much about them that's great for development.”

It's clear that Microsoft has gone to great lengths to ensure that the Xbox platform is an easy one to developer for. But, it doesn’t stop there. With the team at Xbox is also going to great lengths to make it as easy as possible for developers launch on Xbox One S, Xbox One X, and Windows 10 at the same time - whilst taking advantage of each platform. Some of the feedback received from developers, has played an important part in bringing the Xbox One X to life. “Part of the inspiration to do the X came from developers' desire to render in true 4K,” Shannon Loftis says. “And I'm pretty sure developers are going to continue to inform our strategy moving forward.”

But again, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the Xbox One X represents a new console. Albeit one that changes the story a bit. Instead of starting anew with brand new interfaces, controllers, and games, the One X simply offers the best version, visually speaking, of the Xbox One line. Like a fancy new phone, but a console.

“I think hardware needs to continue to evolve and will continue to evolve, and Xbox is always going to be the cornerstone to our gaming business,” Shannon tells me. “I do think that there's a certain value to gamers in knowing that if they game on the Xbox One S or the Xbox One X, and we move on at some point in the future to a different version of the console, that library still works. That it still applies. And this actually turns out to be of value to developers as well because then they can choose when to sequel, or create, and it's not forced by some new console lifecycle.”

Which begs the question, are we effectively seeing the end of the traditional console cycle?

“Are we consciously trying to overturn the generational cycle?” Shannon pauses, “I wouldn't say that's the goal. It may have that impact, but what we're trying to do really is just deliver the choice that gamers want.”

One of the more interesting aspects of the Xbox One X launch that Shannon let me in on was that developers are in no way shape or form required to enhance their games for the new console. Out of the box it plays Xbox One titles, and if that’s where they leave it – that’s fine. But, in talking about developer support for the One X and the number of games already out or in development, she was also quick to point out that the response to the new hardware has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Without getting into the specifics of like first-party, second-party, and third-party conversations, we're getting incredibly great reactions to the power of the Xbox One X,” Shannon explains. “We have I think 150 games that are already out that are being enhanced for launch, and in no case, did we coerce developers to do that. They're doing it because a lot of the time they see the version that they can deliver on One X as being closer, truer to their vision, their original vision for the game than the one that ended up in the market in the first place.”

That’s not to say that Microsoft hasn’t been actively pursuing studios across the globe and proclaiming the benefits of enhancing titles for the Xbox One X, because they’ve done that too.

One aspect about the traditional launch of a new console that seems to be absent with the release of the Xbox One X is the availability of a huge, new, AAA release. A game that releases day and date with the system that showcases not only what it’s capable of but wows people with exceptional production values and great immersive gameplay. When the One X made its full on-stage debut at E3 earlier this year one of the “launch titles” was going to be the highly anticipated Crackdown 3. A game that failed to impress during the debut, and a title that has subsequently been delayed to next year.

Naturally, this slip didn’t affect the timing the Xbox One X console release. But was still a blow to the team at Microsoft.

“We have made a conscious effort to make sure that we do have titles that show off what's great about the box,” Shannon reflects. "Forza 7 is a great example of a game that on the Xbox One X with a great television is just mind-blowingly gorgeous. Of course, I'm the head of publishing and Crackdown 3 was the game that I was meant to deliver for Xbox One X launch and it was not a light decision to not ship it with Xbox One X. We as a team wanted to make sure that we were delivering on quality across the board for all the different modes of Crackdown, so we did make the decision to move it.”

“But when it comes out I think it's going to be a beautiful game,” Shannon adds. “You know, we've been tracking it for obviously the entire time that we've been developing it. And with any game that we make, we want to make sure that it's the right game. The right time and the right quality, and Crackdown is a vast expanse of gaming. There's a campaign, which can be played single-player or cooperatively and then there's the multiplayer online game. And we just needed to make sure that all three were at the same quality level and that that was a quality level that we were proud to deliver.”

Delaying the release of a game always goes one of two ways, either it gets delayed even further down the road or eventually gets released in a far better state. There’s a third option, cancellation, but that’s rare for a game with an established and exact release date. In the age of large studios with hundreds of people working on the development of a single title, one wonders if that makes it easier or harder to predict just when something will be ready.

“One of the things I've always loved about games is where emerging technology meets the commercial and consumer marketplace,” Shannon explains. “And so, new technology, whether it's cloud-rendered destruction in Crackdown or some new local client rendering technique or some AI, there’s an inherent degree of instability in your ability to predict. What I've observed over the last 20 plus years is that scheduling tools have become much more sophisticated and processes and production techniques have also become much more sophisticated. But again, it does always come down to that last point - the right game, right time, right quality. And if you're not at the combination of those three then you shouldn't release.”

Pausing to laugh at the length of that response, Shannon adds. “So, I guess that's a long-winded way of saying slipping Crackdown was incredibly painful for us and many lessons have been learned from it. We will not repeat the same specific mistakes for Crackdown and try to be more predictable in the future. Because when you make a promise to gamers, you hurt them when you don't deliver.”

One exclusive, or console exclusive, that has grown to become one of the most anticipated Xbox One releases this year is the debut of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds or PUBG in December. A relatively unique story of a game that became an almost overnight phenomenon this year. Plus, there’s the whole thing about it being an online shooter from a small team and a title that is still in Early Access. When asked about current trends in the industry or shifts that are more indicative of the current climate, the conversation naturally led to world of the Battle Royale.

“One of the big innovations, one of the big things that's changed in game development is that it used to be a developer to gamer kind of monologue,” Shannon says. “And now more and more you're seeing games like PUBG, which comes out in an Early Access form. And I think Bluehole and the PUBG group have done an amazing job of just listening to what people say and modifying that game on an almost daily basis.”

“And so, I think that's going to be more typical of both console and PC development moving forward,” Shannon continues. “This early engagement with the gaming community. It may change the way that games are, I'm not too good at the prognostication of E3 type shows, but it might change the way that games are announced. Getting that gamer input early is just crucial to engaging the community and delivering what people want.”

You wouldn’t blame anyone from Microsoft highlighting PUBG when talking about new gamer trends, development trends, or even the Xbox One’s holiday line-up. Getting the highest selling PC game this year on the console is a great coup. In fact, one wonders how and when Microsoft decided to actively pursue a console release for the game.

“It's my secret sauce. I can't tell you that,” Shannon Loftis jokes. “What I'll tell you though is that we watched streaming services and we watched Steam concurrent numbers, and we do that a lot. We're constantly looking, and we have people passionate about games, Mike Ybarra is a great example of somebody, and he's our platform lead, who loved the game from the first time that he played it and he was a big advocate internally. So, between the gamers we know and love and the publicly available sources of information, sometimes you get lucky and get in first.”

But securing a release is only part of the story, and in the case of PUBG coming to Xbox One it’s no secret that Microsoft has been working closely with Bluehole to provide extensive development support and tools to make the transition as easy, and timely, as possible.

“We've done it a couple of times before,” Shannon tells me. “We did it with Minecraft prior to our acquisition and we did it with the World of Tanks game and a couple of others. And so, we have a wide variety of different ways that we can engage with developers. We can either provide with them with funds so that they can source their development, or we can provide them with the source of the development and lots of different things in between.”

With a December 12 launch date, many are expecting that PUBG on the Xbox One will follow in the footsteps of the PC release and become an almost overnight success on the console. But with the year wrapping up one also wonders what’s next for the Xbox One X, and the Xbox platform. With Enhanced versions of titles make their way to players via updates, there’s still the big question of what exciting new titles will take advantage of the new console.

And in wrapping up our discussion Shannon tells me, “We are at any given time publishing, or we're typically engaged with, 17 or 18 different games that are either in prototype or in production. And so, I'm excited for E3 next year. I think we'll have some cool stuff to talk about.”